INTERNATIONAL DEBATE ON ABORTION RIGHTS: AN OVERVIEW

In the last fifty years, there has been a clear trend toward the liberalization of abortion laws across the globe, particularly in developed countries. The development has corresponded with a greater acceptance of abortion, but the actual procedure still faces persistent disapproval. The topic of Abortion Rights for women has been a heated debate in contemporary times due to the recent wave of US states passing laws aiming to restrict abortion services, It has reignited the debate over this procedure, and on whether a woman should be allowed to access it freely, leading to the ‘Pro-life versus Pro-choice’ debate.

Pro-life vs. Pro-choice debate

The people who are ‘pro-life’ believe that the presence of freely available abortion services does not value human existence and so abortions need to be restricted. They contend that even a nonviable life form is consecrated and should be saved. Abortions must not be practised at all, as per this view, be it legally or illegally. The ‘pro-life’ believe that the Government holds a responsibility to protect all human existence, paying little mind to feasibility, or personal preferences.

The individuals who favour abortion rights, i.e. the ‘pro-choice’, support abortion services as being legitimate and necessary. They uphold that people have absolute autonomy of their reproductive systems, and should therefore be allotted the choice of parenthood.

There is also a religious colour in this conflict. The ‘pro-life’ believe that if one accepts that an immortal soul is brought into existence at the very point of embryo creation, and that “personhood” is dictated by the presence of that soul, then, at that point, there is adequately no distinction between ending a week-old pregnancy or killing grown human being. The ‘pro-choice’ on the other hand believe that there is a distinct difference between terminating a fetus and killing a grown person and that the bodily autonomy of a woman must be given primary importance.

Important Statistics

The quality and safety of abortion treatments, as well as maternal survival rates, have increased as countries across the globe have relaxed the grounds on which women can obtain reproductive health services. Abortion rates are essentially identical between countries with highly stringent abortion laws are in place (34 per thousand women annually[1]) and those where the procedure is authorized without restrictions (37 per thousand women annually[2]), but the procedure’s safety varies greatly. Nearly 90% of abortions in countries having liberal abortion laws are deemed safe, while countries with restrictive access to these services have a safety rate of a mere 25%.

It portrays that though the number of women availing of these services is equivalent in both situations, the quality and safety of the services they are able to obtain are significantly different. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe abortions cause 4.7% – 13.2% of maternal deaths globally[3], with practically all of these deaths being aggravated due to the restrictions placed on legally accessing those services. It is therefore important to ensure greater acceptance of and access to these services to improve the quality thereof.

Abortion laws around the world

Though the legitimacy of abortion varies significantly by region and country, almost all nations allow for abortions while imposing a few restrictions, and only six nations deny abortions absolutely, which are the Dominican Republic, Chile, El Salvador, Vatican City, Nicaragua, and Malta[4]. Most developed nations permit abortions without restrictions. Around 125 nations have a few limitations, ordinarily allowing abortion in restricted circumstances, like financial constraints, dangers to the physical or emotional wellbeing of the woman, or presence of fetal irregularities.

State of abortion laws in some of the biggest countries in the world are as follows:

  1. The United States

A pivotal point in ensuring abortion rights in the United States was the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade[5], which struck down most state laws limiting abortion, along these lines decriminalizing and sanctioning abortion. This case permitted women to have greater discretion in choosing to have an abortion. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey[6] reaffirmed this right, however providing guidelines, like specifying waiting periods and parental assent requirements. Therefore, the current legal position of abortion in the US is that it is legal, but may be restricted by the different states to fluctuating degrees.

In recent times, a wave of anti-abortion laws has come up in the states of the US, like Texas and Alabama. States have brought a whooping 100 abortion-restricting legislations in 2021, in what has turned into the most prohibitive year for abortion rights since Roe v. Wade[7] was passed. A complete of 19 states have passed a total of 106 laws, including 12 abortion bans[8].

  1. The United Kingdom

Abortion is available legally throughout the United Kingdom. In Great Britain, abortion is available through the Abortion Act 1967[9], which allows for abortion up to 24 weeks. Unfortunately, though this Act was brought in England, Wales, and Scotland, it only introduced certain grounds in which an abortion can be carried out, but it never repealed the Victorian law, which still applies to this day. The Act has still not been able to provide bodily autonomy to British women. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has only recently provided abortion rights to women by repealing the Offences against the Person Act, 1861[10] in 2020.

  1. China

China has legalized abortion throughout the country, yet the way it is utilized is exploitative for the citizens rather than empowering. China changed its abortion laws during the 1950s and improved access to these services under its one-child policy, which was sanctioned in 1979 with an end goal of keeping the child rate to just one per family. The enforcement of this policy was accompanied by severely coercive measures, like fines, mandatory sterilization, and abortions, to dissuade unapproved and excessive births. Though China had raised this long-standing cutoff, to two children in 2016 and now to three children in 2021, activists anticipate that the Chinese government, aiming to control demographic trends in the country, may again force abortions upon its women.

  1. India

Abortion in India has been lawful under different conditions throughout the last 50 years with the presence of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP Act), 1971[11]. India’s MTP Act has been amended only twice over these 5 decades, once in 2002 and as of late in 2021.

MTP Amendment Act, 2021[12], which came into force on 25 March 2021, has caused certain revisions in the Act, including all women being permitted to access safe abortion facilities on grounds of contraceptive failure, expansion in gestation period to 24 weeks for extraordinary cases, and requirement of the opinion of only one medical practitioner in cases of pregnancies of up to 20 weeks. Abortion expenses are fully covered by the Government’s public health care coverage schemes.

The Act is a progressive step taken in this direction, yet it is not free from lacunae. The Act requires for constitution of a Medical Board to preliminarily analyze and allow for abortions, therefore impeding the autonomy of Indian women to freely access abortion facilities. Further, the Act permits abortion beyond 24 weeks only in cases where the Board diagnoses severe fetal irregularities. This causes a rape victim to demand abortion beyond 24 weeks only through a Writ Appeal. The Act also requires abortions to be performed exclusively by specialists in the field of gynaecology or obstetrics. But as there exists a 75% deficiency of such specialists in rural areas, pregnant women may still find it difficult to access safe abortion facilities.

Conclusion

Abortion Rights need to be provided around the globe as blatantly delegitimizing abortions will not cause abortions to stop, but will only reduce the safety involved in the procedure. With millions of women dying due to unsafe abortions and related injuries and infections globally, as a result of undergoing such unsupervised procedures, free and affordable access to safe abortion facilities must be made a priority.

Author(s) Name: Tejaswini Kaushal (Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow)

References:

[1] G Sedgh, J Bearak et al., Abortion Incidence between 1990 and 2014: Global, Regional, and Subregional Levels and Trends, 338 The Lancet Journal 256, 256-267 (2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Preventing Unsafe Abortion, World Health Organization (Nov. 20, 2021, 9:29 PM), https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preventing-unsafe-abortion.

[4]  Devon Haynie, Countries Where Abortion Is Illegal Under Most Circumstances, U.S. News (Nov. 24, 2021, 11:29 AM), https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2016-02-08/10-countries-where-abortion-is-illegal-under-most-circumstances.

[5] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[6] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[7] Jane Roe, et al. v. Henry Wade, District Attorney of Dallas County, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[8] Kaia Hubbard , States Enact Record Number of Abortion Restrictions in 2021, US News (Nov. 23, 2021, 11:29 PM), https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2021-10-05/states-enact-record-number-of-abortion-restrictions-in-2021.

[9] The Abortion Act, 1967, Act of the Parliament, 1967 (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland).

[10]  Offences against the Person Act, 1861, Act of the Parliament, 1861 (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland).

[11] Medical Termination Of Pregnancy Act, 1971, No. 34, Act of Parliament, 1971 (India).

[12] Medical Termination of Pregnancy (AmendmentAct, 2021, No. 8, Act of Parliament, 1971 (India).

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